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How Nir Barkat’s Lack of Poetry Brought Jerusalem Back From the Dead

Can the mayor hold on in the next elections and continue his drive to pull the ancient city into the 21st century?

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Right off Emek Refaim Street in Jerusalem’s German Colony, across from the construction site of a boutique hotel, a sign with faded Hebrew print observes, “It’s sad/ To be Mayor of Jerusalem. It is terrible./ How can any man be the mayor of a city like that?/ What can he do with her?/ He will build, and build, and build./ And at night/ The stones of the hills round about will crawl down/ Toward the stone houses,/ Like wolves coming/ To howl at the dogs/ Who have become men’s slaves” (translated from the Hebrew by Assia Guttman). Yehuda Amichai, the great Jerusalemite poet who wrote those words, died 13 years ago. He might possibly have written something a little different for Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.

An average June morning found Barkat in his office at 7:00 sharp, perhaps after the 3-mile jog he often makes from his home in the upscale neighborhood of Beit HaKerem to City Hall. The afternoon found him cheering on the Formula 1 race cars that shut down much of city center and attracted tens of thousands of Jerusalemites who waited patiently in the sun to glimpse—and hear—the fast machines.

The Formula 1 road show might have been unique in scale and cost, but it is just one of a slew of sports and cultural events that have helped Jerusalem outpace Tel Aviv and Haifa as Israel’s No. 1 spot for internal tourism. The number of new jobs has increased each year, and the migration from Jerusalem of what Barkat refers to as the “Zionist sector”—the secular and Modern Orthodox population that serve in the military, work, and pay taxes—has finally come to a halt. Despite being one of the most outspokenly hawkish politicians in this country, he remains very popular with wide swaths of his constituency, which has come to accept him as a brash but successful urban CEO. Jerusalem created 5,000 new jobs a year until 2008—when Barkat was elected—and by 2012 there were 17,000 new jobs per year.

Small wonder, then, that in the run-up to the municipal elections scheduled for this coming October, Barkat, 53, remains as of yet unchallenged. “I assume someone will challenge me,” he told Tablet magazine in a recent interview at city hall, “but I’m confident. I believe I’ll get re-elected.”

Barkat’s most likely challenger is Moshe Leon, chairman of the Jerusalem Development Authority—and a close confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former Deputy Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman—who hasn’t announced yet but is reportedly eyeing the mayor’s office. Netanyahu has publicly distanced himself from the move, which seems to be the result of inner-Likud politicking under Lieberman’s influence, but nothing is certain. If Leon were to join the race, as a joint Likud and ultra-Orthodox candidate, that would be a failure of what many perceive as recent overtures on the part of Barkat to Netanyahu—including the naming of an intersection after Netanyahu’s late father and the recent tourism award given to Netanyahu’s benefactor Sheldon Adelson. Losing the Haredi vote to a candidate viewed as more favorable to their sector’s needs—Leon is religious, though not ultra-Orthodox—could very well mean the loss of the mayoralty.

But Barkat, who stays relentlessly on-message, said he has the support that counts. “The public are the ones voting, and they like what they see,” he told Tablet. “It’ll be extremely difficult for anybody to come and convince them otherwise.” His stump speech is a carefully itemized list of first-term achievements, and he rattles them off with alacrity. Tourism? “Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish people and a destination for pilgrims from all over the world. We’re proving that potential with close to 4 million tourists a year.” Events? “The Euro Under-21 football games in June, Maccabiah games in July, Formula 1, Jerusalem marathon: These are all new and expanded sports and culture initiatives that create not only a buzz, but real culture. That translates to better quality of life, attractive city for young people, and a significant boost in job creation.”

Over his next term, Barkat plans to build the largest sports complex in the country to host national and international games, and even build an aquarium. “In 2017,” he said, “you’ll take a fast train from Tel Aviv and be in Jerusalem in 28 minutes. You’ll alight in the middle of the new business district, with 13 35-story towers. There will be two more light-rail lines and a cable-car to the Old City.”

***

Born in 1959 to a folk-dancing instructor and a physics professor, Barkat moved with his family to Jerusalem when he was very young. In 1977 he enlisted with the paratroopers. He became an officer and stayed in the military for six years, garnering combat experience as a company commander in the First Lebanon war. He received his degree in computer science from Hebrew University, married his high-school sweetheart Beverly (they have three daughters). The company he founded with his brother and friends, BRM, was a pioneer in antivirus software. Using the profits gained from the sale of their core technology to the security software giant Symantec, BRM provided initial venture capital to Check Point, which was then a tiny Israeli start-up specializing in innovative firewalls. Only a few years later, that $400,000 investment was worth several hundred million dollars. In 2003, Barkat, long past the point of realizing that he would never have to work another day in his life, entered his first race for mayor of Jerusalem.

Today, Barkat’s prized Zionist sector is still in the minority, with more Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews living in Jerusalem than secular and Modern Orthodox Jews. But at least that minority is finally growing—“we’re opening 27 new kindergartens in the Zionist sector this September”—and not shrinking as it was under his predecessors Ehud Olmert and Uri Lupolianski. When I raised the possibility that perhaps the negative migration was affected by the Second Intifada, Barkat seemed taken aback. “There’s no direct correlation,” he said. “The changes had nothing to do with security. We’re focusing on the positive. It’s about marketing Jerusalem. Take the events in the Old City,”—he said, in reference to festivals, sponsored by the municipality, that draw thousands. “They boosted the return of the public there. It’s better now than it was before the Intifada.”

“Of course he was lucky,” said Nir Hasson, who covers the Jerusalem beat for Haaretz. “Lucky for the separation fence that effectively ended the threats to the city. Lucky for five years of relative prosperity. And lucky for the light rail that Olmert initiated in a very unpopular move, whose installation took forever and made everyone miserable. The day he took office, Barkat hinted he might even do away with it, but in the end he was more than happy to be the one cutting the ribbon.”

Barkat may have been lucky, but he has remarkably few vocal critics. “Jerusalem doesn’t need a complicated philosopher king, but someone who knows how to get things done,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and longtime Jerusalemite. Halevi thinks Barkat is the best man on the job since Teddy Kollek, Jerusalem’s legendary and much-loved mayor and master-builder, whose reign lasted for almost 30 years (1965-1993). “What he’s accomplished is phenomenal. He’s succeeded in promoting a vision of a modern Jerusalem, using culture as a vehicle, without rousing the ultra-Orthodox against him in an organized way. He’s brought large numbers of secular Israelis to Jerusalem, if not to live here than at least to visit, and that’s a tremendous first step.”

***

After Barkat lost the 2003 elections to the ultra-Orthodox Lupolianski, with only 43 percent of the vote, he spent five years as an opposition councilman working with NGOs on grassroots initiatives in the city. Politically, he seemed to be a centrist; in the run-up to the 2006 national elections, he chaired Kadima’s Jerusalem headquarters. But two years later, close observers say, Barkat had the epiphany that would call for an extreme rightward turn on his part but that would finally win him the job he coveted.

“Barkat realized that the prevailing wisdom was wrong,” explained Hasson. “Everyone thought that there were two sectors in Jerusalem, the ultra-Orthodox Haredim and the secular public, who almost always vote for their own. But the true kingmakers are a third sector: the national-religious, Modern Orthodox Jews. They can vote either ultra-Orthodox or secular, but they tend to be pretty right wing. That being the political reality, you just can’t be a leftist mayor in Jerusalem.” Barkat then reinvented himself as a vocal hard-liner: A month before the election, he toured the planned site of a new Jewish neighborhood—Sha’ar Hamizrach (Gate of the East) deep in the heart of North Jerusalem, by the Arab neighborhood of Anata—and promised to build it. Five years later, those plans have yet to come to fruition, but Barkat’s new right-wing persona paid off: He won the elections with 52 percent of the vote (the ultra-Orthodox candidate Meir Porush received only 43 percent).

His rhetoric is harsh—especially for a man with such carefully controlled speech—and at times almost tone-deaf to diplomatic reality, like when he suggested the Palestinians rename Ramallah “Jerusalem” because that would be the closest they’d ever get to having Jerusalem as their capital.

When I asked Barkat about the value of enforcing Israeli sovereignty over the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, despite the clear division of the city’s neighborhoods along ethnic and national lines, Barkat told me he didn’t understand the question. “There’s room for everyone in the city,” he said. “Usually people like to live near people similar to them. As mayor I have no say, but I respect people’s will. As municipal service-providers, homogenous neighborhoods are easier to serve. The reality is that all residents will be treated equally by the municipality.” While he acknowledged the gaps between the city’s Jewish and Arab neighborhoods, he said he’s working to close them, opening over 100 new classrooms in Arab neighborhoods this year (out of a planned 500) and working on improving infrastructure and roads.

“Part of his vision for Jerusalem is to truly unite East and West as much as possible,” said Klein Halevi. “There are powerful signs of that happening: the light-rail”—which serves both Jewish and Arab neighborhoods—“is a celebration of the banality of coexistence. It’s truly an achievement to have a crowded train car filled with the human diversity of the city: people who don’t really want to be in the same car with each other but have no choice and are making the best of it. That is Barkat’s Jerusalem.”

Nir Hasson agrees that beneath Barkat’s right-wing rhetoric lurks the heart of a middle-of-the-road pragmatist. “For all his talk of an eternally united Jerusalem, he knows that the question of dividing the city for peace won’t be settled in his office,” he explained. “He’s done a lot to obtain permits for unauthorized buildings in Arab neighborhoods, and the demolitions are the lowest they’ve been in years.”

But in a city as complex as Jerusalem, no policy is without its repercussions: Hasson has also observed a growing “Israelization” of the city, with increasing numbers of East Jerusalem Arabs—who enjoy better municipal services while finding access to the West Bank more difficult since the construction of the separation wall—applying for full Israeli citizenship. The implications of this trend for the likelihood of East Jerusalem becoming the capital of a future Palestinian state are anyone’s guess.

Barkat’s Jerusalem, then, is that of the recent Formula 1. He said, “280,000 viewers, tens of thousands of Arabs and ultra-orthodox among them, all sharing the streets. Everyone was happy. There was not one incident reported to the police. That demonstrates something about us Jerusalemites: People wake up in the morning, they want quality of life, jobs, great hospitals. Eventually the city is shared by the residents far more than people think.”

In the meantime, though, the road to complete normalization is a long one. On a tour of the Old City, Barkat made a point of greeting some Arab cleaners at work in the Jewish quarter—“Good work, ya habibi!”—and posing for pictures with them. But Barkat’s campaign workers in blue-and-orange T-shirts, ubiquitous at events in the city, are nowhere to be seen in Arab neighborhoods. Barkat, supremely confident he’ll win the Jewish vote, said that he doesn’t know whether the Arabs will vote for him. The real question is whether they’ll vote at all, as the Palestinian Authority traditionally enforces a powerful boycott on the municipal elections. (Only about 1 percent of Arab residents participated in the last elections.)

Barkat’s Jerusalem, smoothing over the rifts and ruptures that many other politicians would more likely exploit for their own benefit, could serve as a useful example for the greater Israeli society. How does he plan on integrating the historically poor Arab and ultra-Orthodox populations? “Parallel job creation and education. We’ve created a bullish economic atmosphere that enables more and more businesses to start,” he said. The point is not to impose upon people who value their autonomy, “but to let them opt in, so they can catch up. Not by pushing them, but by pulling them—that’s much more effective.” By ignoring the city’s inherently tragic state and celebrating the banalities of coexistence, Barkat’s mayorality may not be the stuff of great poetry, but it has brought Jerusalemites something much rarer here: hope.

***

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How Nir Barkat’s Lack of Poetry Brought Jerusalem Back From the Dead

Can the mayor hold on in the next elections and continue his drive to pull the ancient city into the 21st century?